the Gospels on two hot-button issues

On Saturday, Laurie Goodstein wrote a story in the New York Times about a Minnesota megachurch pastor, Rev. Gregory A. Boyd, who has broken with the conservative movement. He is not the only evangelical in revolt against the GOP, and the political implications are interesting. But I was struck by something different in the article: a point of theology and biblical interpretation. According to Goodstein’s paraphrase, Rev. Boyd said that “Christians these days [are] constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public. ‘Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act,’ he said. ‘And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed.'”

Indeed, I cannot think of an episode in which Jesus demands the right to display his faith in a public setting, nor a moment when he expresses outrage about sexual behavior. In fact, there are two Gospel passages in which he does quite the opposite.

Chapter 12 of Mark ends with Jesus teaching in the Temple (a public edifice devoted to religious ceremony). Four brief episodes within that chapter praise privacy or discreetness in matters of faith. First, some Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is permissable to pay taxes using a coin that bears a graven image of Caesar Augustus, who is portrayed blasphemously as a god. Jesus replies that a public expression contrary to his belief is of no consequence; what matters is his inward faith. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Next, a scribe “discreetly” accepts Jesus’ interpretation of Moses’ Law. The scribe confesses to Jesus that the whole Law means this: “to love [God] with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The scribe’s discretion–as well as his rejection of public ceremony–seems to please Jesus.

Then Jesus inveighs against those who make a show of their faith:

Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts: which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation.

And finally he singles out a woman who, I have always imagined, makes her modest contribution very discreetly, out of shame for her poverty:

And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

While Mark 12 is about public displays of faith (and therefore relevant to debates about prayer in school), the great text for understanding Jesus’ view of sexuality is John 8:2-11, the story of the “Woman Taken in Adultery.” It’s a rich and controversial text, and I have pasted my own interpretation below the fold. (This comes from my book-in-progress about Dante.)

According to Deuteronomy, every case of adultery involves a married woman or a betrothed virgin who “lies with” a man. There are two possible places where this can take place: within the city or in the fields. In the city, the woman has a duty to cry out if she is raped, so if she is found with a man, her consent is assumed and she merits execution by stoning. Outside the city, however, no one can hear her cries, so she is considered innocent. In all cases, the man with whom she “lies” is to be stoned to death. These clearly defined categories are supposed to cover all instances (Deut. 22:22 27).

Jesus’ enemies presumably thought that he disliked some aspects of the strict Old Testament law. They tried to entrap him by asking his opinion of an adultery case:

2. And early in the morning, he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

3. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,

4. They say [sic] unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.

5. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

6. This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote [or drew] on the ground.

7. So when they continued asking him, he lifted himself up, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

8. And again he stooped down, and wrote [not drew] on the ground.

9. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

10. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?

11. She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more (John, 8:2 11).

This passage could be read as evidence of Jesus’ “antinomianism:” his hostility to outward, written, or formal laws, and his embrace of emotions such as love and pity. Nietzsche, for one, thought that Jesus was a thorough antinomian who was misunderstood by the whole mainstream Christian tradition. According to Nietzsche, “Jesus said to his Jews: ‘The law was for servants?love God as I love him, as his son! What do morals matter to us sons of God!'”

To anyone who views laws and ethical doctrines as burdensome, this permissive interpretation of Jesus’ teaching will be appealing. But such readers will have difficulty explaining his admonition: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law … For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no ways pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17 19).

A second reading makes Jesus sound more judgmental and demanding even than Moses. According to this interpretation, Jesus internalizes the Mosaic Law, assessing intentions rather than actions. This is perhaps how he “fulfills” the Hebrew law of adultery. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shall not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5: 27 28). On this definition, the scribes and Pharisees are evidently as guilty as the woman whom they found in “the very act”; and they have no business judging her. Nevertheless, Jesus subscribes to a clear definition of adultery, and the woman is guilty if (but only if) she felt lust in her heart. If Jesus? main purpose was to internalize the Law, then he would have been in agreement with some mainstream rabbis of the same era, who taught that “evil thoughts are worse than lustful deeds,” and that the worst form of adultery was to imagine another man while actually having sex with one’s husband.

On the other hand, if Jesus condemns all who feel lust in their hearts, then why does he forgive the Woman? He does not claim that her adultery was involuntary. Being free of sin, he could cast the first stone against her.

A third interpretation is at least as plausible. Tony Tanner writes: “The scribes and Pharisees … set up a situation in which the woman is brought forward as a classified object to be looked at and talked about; they have depersonalized her (a woman taken in adultery) and reified her (she is ‘set’ in their midst). Christ refuses to look and, initially, refuses to talk. That is, he refuses to participate in this specular attitude to the woman and to discuss her as a category. By doing this he restores the full existential reality to the situation.”

The “full existential reality” is captured in the Gospel narrative. Even if we have read the story many times before, it can still generate suspense. A woman has been snatched from some intimate setting by a mob intent on stoning her to death. (It is worth imagining exactly how this would feel.) She is hauled into the temple to be used as a test for a radical young rabbi. She clearly belongs within the class of “adulterers” as defined by Deuteronomy. How then can Jesus rescue her without violating Holy Scripture? After an anxious pause, he succeeds by forcing the concrete reality of the situation onto the consciousness of the scribes and Pharisees. They must stop applying rules in order to consider individuals?themselves first of all. As Tanner writes, Jesus’ question “thrusts them back into their own interiority (they are ‘convicted by their own conscience’), and it dissolves the group identity within which they have concealed themselves (they go out ‘one by one’ as individuals, having arrived as ?scribes? and Pharisees’).”

It would be fascinating to know what Jesus wrote while the audience awaited his verdict. But we pointedly are not told, which leaves us to interpret a bare act of writing. This reminds us that we are reading a written text, whose purpose is to relate the concrete facts of Jesus’ life in order to provoke a moral and spiritual transformation in the reader. “These are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name” (20:31). Perhaps Jesus’ purpose is similar: he also wants to inscribe a story so that appropriate moral judgments will follow. His story encompasses one woman?s actions, intentions, feelings, and circumstances, which Jesus knows because he can read her perfectly. “He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man” (2:24-25). He is the ideal interpreter and narrator?hence, the ideal judge.

Seamus Heaney reads this story as an illustration of writing’s moral value. “Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught,” he writes, poetry and the other imaginative arts “are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which is at the basis of every individuated life.” Poetry, Heaney asserts, is just like Jesus’ writing on the ground:

It does not say to the accusing crowd or the helpless accused, ?Now a solution will take place,? it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.

This is what gives poetry its governing power. At its greatest moments it would attempt, in Yeats?s phrase, to hold in a single thought reality and justice.

When Jesus is asked to judge the Woman Taken in Adultery, we expect him to offer an “instrumental or effective” solution: an answer that will acquit her (if that’s what she deserves), without violating the Law. In other words, we expect a clear and valid doctrine. But Jesus, by his mysterious act of writing, pointedly refuses such a solution. Instead, his writing somehow combines reality and justice.

Yeats had in mind poetry’s capacity to describe an ideal alternative to mundane reality. So for example, he regarded the ?circuits? in his metaphysical system “as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.” Along these lines, Jesus’ writing (or drawing?) could be understood as a mystical and transcendent act, something that challenges his audience to rise above standard human behavior.

An alternative appeals to me more. On this view, Jesus combines reality and justice by describing the concrete details of the Woman?s life, using words that are appropriate to the facts but that also have strong moral connotations. He knows, perhaps, that she has fallen in love, that she has gained self-respect, that she has suffered coercion, that she has experienced tender pleasure, that she regrets her infidelity, and other such details. By acknowledging them, he challenges the crowd of scribes and Pharisees to think in a similarly concrete and judgmental way about themselves as well as about the Woman. The thinking that he requires of them resembles the detailed, perceptive descriptions that are typical of fiction and poetry. Without resort to mysticism or paradox, these descriptions hold reality and justice in a single thought.

As Rev. Boyd knows, Jesus never demands the right to express personal faith in public settings, nor does he condemn people for breaking rules about sexuality. He saves his ire for religious show-offs and sexual puritans. Boyd’s fundamentalist faith has led him to reject some major points of the conservative political agenda. (He also rejects idolotry of the flag and militarism). This is not only politically auspicious–it’s interesting.


Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 164

C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (London, 1938), ? 745 (Yoma 29a, init); ?748 (Tanhuma [ed. Buber], Naso ?13 f. 16a).

Tony Tanner, Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression (Baltimore, 1979) pp. 22 23.

Seamus Heaney, “The Government of the Tongue,” in The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978 1987 (New York, 1988) pp. 107 8.

Yeats, A Vision (New York, 1966), p. 35.

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2 Responses to the Gospels on two hot-button issues

  1. airth10 says:

    Well said.

    As I read the article in The Times I thought of John Dean’s new book “Conservatives Without Conscience”.

    There is an intersting backlash developing against what has been the last six year of over the top conservative zeal. Perhaps a corner is being turned.

    The recent Mel Gibson episode and his past Christian zealotry seems to tie in with what Rev. Boyd observed.

  2. Scott D says:


    (at least) since the 2004 elections liberal commentators have announced the hypocrisy of the Religious Right’s focus on gay sex/marriage over poverty. Jesus talked about poverty all the time, they assert.

    This tactic lacks rhetorical strength b/c we cannot tear down another’s belief system and replace it with merely the Democratic Party platform.

    By taking appropriate time to delve into several approaches Jesus may have had to public religion and sexual immorality, you offer a deeper replacement for the previous piety.



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